Naya Rivera Was the Best Part of ‘Glee’
The now-infamous musical dramedy was revolutionary in so many ways, but none more powerful than when it let Naya Rivera and her character, Santana, sing.
It’s rare when you can actually witness the moment on screen when a talent steps into their star status, the spark that sets the marquee ablaze as they, in the exact right role with the exact right material, ascend to their talent’s full potential.
You saw that moment with Naya Rivera.
If you watched Glee you know exactly what we’re talking about, because you didn’t just watch that scene. You then downloaded the song on iTunes—one of the last times a TV musical became a Billboard sensation. You listened to it so many times that when you hear the thumping intro to Adele’s version of the song, you assume it’s going to transition into the Glee mash-up. And you’ve cued up the video of the performance so many times since.
It’s one of those pop-culture moments that doesn’t just dazzle, it imprints. It becomes the thing you don’t recall just to be entertained, but to feel.
Naya Rivera’s performance of “Rumour Has It/Someone Like You” in the third season of Glee was a revelation. We didn’t know that this character, let alone this performer, had that—THAT—in her.
That was the point of that episode, too. It might rank among the best the show produced, back in the time when Glee was in that conversation about the best TV had to offer.
Here was a character we had been conditioned to judge and dismiss as just a bully. But as Rivera belted and her heart came out her throat, we learned so much more—about her, about Santana on the show, about queer angst, about the struggle for people of color, about asserting your worth.
It is in line with the spirit of the show that the entire sentence preceding this reads as absolutely insufferable. It is also in line with the spirit of the show that you not only forgive, but embrace that very thing... and credit Rivera for being the key to honing the tone that let Glee get away with it. And, in doing so, change lives.
Rivera, who is best known for her work on Glee, was reported missing July 8, after a pontoon boat carrying her son came ashore at Lake Piru in Ventura County, Calif., and he reported that she had at one point jumped in the water. After a days-long search, her body was recovered Monday.
Remembrances flooded in from people who were touched by her work on the show. If we may be so bold, her performance on Glee is the reason the series, whatever you may think of it now, transcended into a long-running phenomenon at the time.
We could all point to different characters or moments on the show and say when we felt seen. But Rivera and Santana were rewriting the rules. They were something being depicted on TV for the very first time.
The Glee pilot is known for being, for lack of a better word, perfect. It found a handful of actors to breathe new life into the various tropes representing one facet of high school’s underrepresented—the theater geeks—and produced a still-legendary and award-winning first season.
But any scholar of the series can tell you that it didn’t come alive, let alone evolve into the meaningful looking-glass mirror for artistic, ambitious millennials until Rivera and her Santana arrived as a major character.
The thing that was great about Glee was that it didn’t just allow you to project your own high school experience, your own feelings about being “othered,” your own fantasies of triumphing over that. But it also validated the worth that you always suspected you had, even if others didn’t immediately recognize it.
It made the underserved and under-acknowledged feel, finally, like stars. But it also mandated empathy: Whatever crisis of conscience the It crowd was asked to have after watching the show, the Gleeks among us had one, too, about the jocks and the cheerleaders and the complicated humans behind the glamour of the uniforms.
When it comes to TV depictions of snobby cheerleaders, they don’t come more nuanced than what Rivera did on Glee.
In that episode we keep referring to, the sixth episode of season three, Santana is forced to confront her own feelings about her queerness. That reads as a rudimentary high-school drama plot point in 2020, but back when Glee was airing—a show that already had its progressive One Gay Storyline with Chris Colfer’s Kurt—it was shocking.
Glee wasn’t always known for subtlety. In fact, that was maybe the most gratifying aspect of the show. But nonetheless it took special care in exploring Santana’s storyline. She bullied because she was hurt. She hurt because she was scared. She was loud because she couldn’t be quiet. To all our benefit, she eventually found a way, through words or through song, to articulate that.
That famous pilot expertly introduced a cast of millennial John Hughes movie types. Rivera’s Santana wasn’t fully developed, but that’s because the kind of character she was going to become couldn’t be as brilliantly critiqued and exposed, at least not yet. By the end of the series, owing to the uniqueness of her voice and the unwavering depth she brought to the character, she would be a co-lead.
It’s impossible not to survey Rivera’s contribution to the Glee legacy without acknowledging how remarkable she was even there.
Glee was a show about voices, the power of what happens when those who are silenced let their voices break free.
But, as we’ve especially learned in the years since it aired, the show was apparently selective about the voices it let sing. Of course Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry, whatever judgments you might have in light of recent reports, was given permission to belt to the rafters. And in all the ways they tokenized and pitted her against that female lead, Amber Riley’s Mercedes shattered any episode in which she was given the opportunity to excel.
Rivera’s Santana existed outside of the extremes that the Glee universe was supposed to exist in. There was a quality to her voice, a rasp that her New Directions friends found outright revolutionary, that was able to reach a nuance that no one else on the show could engage with.
How do we count the highlights? Outside of the Adele mash-up: “Landslide,” with Gwyneth Paltrow and Heather Morris, “Valerie” at Sectionals, the shades her voice finds in “Shake It Out,” her arrangement of “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” Whatever an “It Factor” was, its antiquated definition was mandated to change.
It’s almost an indictment of the fanbase of the show that any time Santana asserted herself—be it in her sexuality, her talent, or her confidence—no one knew what to expect. She was fabulous, but also unusual. The show was at its best when it embraced that part of her.
Since Glee ended, Rivera has mostly made headlines because of resurfaced behind-the-scenes anecdotes she shared in her 2016 memoir Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up.
She stayed out of recent discourse surrounding Lea Michele’s on-set behavior, though she talks about that in her book. Still, it’s impossible not to think about this character she accomplished, one that was scripted to the complexity it was because her talent demanded it, and not wonder why that never translated into something more.
She’s worked, and was always good, in the ABC series Devious Maids and then the movie franchise spin-off Step Up: High Water. But, and to her credit, any Glee fan has spent the years since the show’s finale in 2015 wondering, “That’s it?”
It can’t be articulated how invigorating, unusual, and spectacular her rise in the show became, a rise necessitated by her singular voice and talent. That it mirrored a narrative rooted in the fight for people of color to be recognized, the journey for a queer person to accept herself, and the universal struggle of a person to grow into their potential made her arc that much more significant.